A few months ago, I wrote a short piece for Digital Senior’s Dean’s Lister roundup. The one right on top, here. I have a confession to make – I’m not your ideal role model if you’re looking for someone who consistently tops the academic charts. In fact, Dean’s List isn’t my idea of ultimate success. But, don’t go away, just yet! My story doesn’t end there – what I can do, is share with you what happened to me, how I dealt with it, and what I learned from the experience. What I learned, is useful for anyone who wants to stop sucking at life and start being awesome instead!
I mentioned in the previous article, that I ‘overcame’ depression/anxiety. I should probably clarify. What I meant was, that I learned useful skills to help combat it. I transitioned from being curled up in a ball at home, marinating in my misery, to going back to school regularly, participating in classes and CCAs. For the most part, I’m able to keep the ‘thunderclouds’ (as I like to call them) at bay. Sometimes, though, I still fail because of these clouds. Sometimes, messing something up causes the clouds to circle around, vulture-like. But you know what that means? When I make the clouds go away — ‘poof’– and do something right, the victory is that much sweeter.
I still consider myself a reasonable success – I learnt so much more from modules in the past few months, had fun with CCAs, helped out people going through their own troubled times, travelled to some interesting places, kept in touch with wonderful friends & family who seem to have stuck around too, and of course, got to write a little for Digital Senior! And on top of it all, I dealt with the ever-looming thundercloud of depression/anxiety. To share with you everything I want to – things I think will help anyone going through a stressful or difficult time at Uni. – we need to rewind a little.
Approximately a month or two into the start of my 3rd year at NUS, I realized that something was wrong. It’s very hard to put the feelings into words, but I’ll try here. I felt something like a void in my life, though I hadn’t suffered any major loss; while I used to be pretty chill in classes, I’d go sit in the last few rows and try to control the tears of despair – that I didn’t understand anything, that I was doomed, and so on. It was like I was struggling hard to move, but stuck in quicksand.
You know, like those dreams where you keep running, but you look around and realize you’re exactly where you started? I had friends, sure, but for some reason I felt utterly alone and isolated. I couldn’t turn to them for help, or I didn’t want to. They had their own lives and commitments, after all, how could they help? I wanted badly to do well in school, yet couldn’t do the actual work that was needed.
I eventually went home and started therapy. The idea was that it would just be for a couple weeks, and then I would go back and finish the semester as planned. But I found that whenever I thought of going back, I’d suffer a sort of, panic attack. I couldn’t sleep in the nights, wanted to do nothing but lay in bed during those days, hated the sound of ringing phones, and wanted to just run away somewhere – someplace where none of this had happened, where I could start over.
I developed a secondary worry too – what would people think of me when I went back to Singapore? Some people I’d already tried speaking to couldn’t believe the enthusiastic, friendly, bubbly Spatika was going through depression. Would they think I’m weak? Not smart enough? Not good enough for NUS? I even thought of dropping out, rather than facing everyone again. The truth is though, most people care too much about their own lives to think and speculate on yours for more than a few minutes. They’ll forget all about it in a while – especially considering our generation of Millennials has a relatively shorter attention span.
The Turning Point (or not?)
When I went back in January for the next semester, I thought I’d fully recovered. But it wasn’t as easy as that. Being back in the same stressful environment took some adjusting to. Self-harm, suicidal thoughts, lack of motivation & interest – they were all part of the package that is depression/anxiety. I was incredibly lucky to have understanding & supportive family and friends, and a good rapport with my therapist. Anyone who feels hesitant or weird about seeing a therapist – don’t be. What could be better than sharing all your problems, worries, and fears with an unbiased listener who you are unlikely to see outside the context of the clinic?
I saw a psychiatrist on campus as well, covered by my student health insurance – something all students should take full advantage of, by the way. I still cried a lot, for no reason, found it hard to answer my phone – always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I felt scared to meet my old friends, worried about how they’d react to me. As cinematic as it would be, there was no one shining moment, no epiphany that helped me take back control of my life. There was however, a gradual improvement.
How You Can Be Awesome
So. What did I learn from this nearly year-long experience? It takes constant care – whether in the form of medical attention, getting professional help, spilling your guts to a best friend, staying active & eating well, just spending some down-time doing what you like – whatever you think will work for you, and whatever feels good. If you’re left alone for whatever reason, you could watch a feel-good movie, a funny talk-show, get out into the fresh air, or just take a short nap. Whatever it may be, you need a periodic ‘self-therapy session’ to avoid burning out or frying your nerves.
If you do choose to share (which I highly recommend!) don’t let people trivialize what you’re feeling. At the same time, don’t let yourself blow it out of proportion – that’ll just cause secondary worries and lead to a vicious cycle. Another important realization from my experience – be more accepting of faults. Also, be aware of your own breathing, emotions & thoughts – knowing yourself is half the battle one. Mind influences body, and vice versa!
If you’re feeling a bit sceptical about taking any kind of medication, then that’s fine too. What works for one, may not work for another – be honest and tell your therapist you’re not that comfortable with it. Their sole goal for every single session is to help you feel better at the end of it.
Just know that at least in my experience, a lot of the scary side-effects that you read about are the exceptions and not the rule – especially for the lower dosages. And taking medication might also help to take away the ‘out of control’ feeling.
Again, find out what works for you. It may not be what you think, which is why it’s important to seek professional help to begin with. Without the help of my therapist, I wouldn’t have been able to discover that what really helped me was to surround myself with people I love. Before that discovery, I thought I was one of those people who didn’t really get attached to friends; someone who didn’t really mind socializing, but didn’t need it to live. Also with the help of my therapist, I was able to identify a few signs that would tip me off about whether or not I was having a ‘relapse’ and be proactive about preventing one.
This Doesn’t Define You
If it helps, you can think of your issues/stress, as being caused because of factors out of your control – something that isn’t part of you, or your personality. It’s just an unfortunate accident, like a flu that may get you down every now and then. It’s more important to realize that even if the cause is often inexplicable and out of your control, overcoming it is completely within your control.
I met one of my very first therapists recently, and she was checking in about problems I used to tell her about – like my fear of going to the mini-mart a couple minutes away from my room. I’d totally forgotten that I’d ever had a phase like that and was surprised that that had ever been me. Your ‘issues’ don’t have to dictate your life. They’re just a reminder to slow down and smell the roses. In other words, pay a little attention to your mind and body for a change.
Don’t just take it from me, though – there are so many successful people who have lived with similar issues, or have experienced them at one time or another: Abe Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin, Winston Churchill, Emma Stone, to name a few. Even the last people you’d expect to have dealt with something as ‘dark’ as this – comedians like Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell and the YouTube personality Lily Singh a.k.a Superwoman. So many have overcome this or deal with it everyday even, all while maintaining successful personal lives and careers. So why not you too? Just remember, you’re not alone & you’ve got this!
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